Opening Doors for Doctorates

A U.K.-based business school addresses the dearth of women academics in the Middle East through a PhD program that removes the residential requirement.

It was ten years ago when I started writing about the risk of an “academic black hole” in the six Arab nations that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) region: Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. I argued then that business schools in the West needed to broker more partnerships with schools in the GCC. My belief was—and still is—that such partnerships would cultivate mutual understanding among schools, build the capacity for business research and insights at GCC universities, and help GCC economies become more diversified and independent from oil revenues.

What was not at the top of my mind then, however, was the role of women. But I’ve increasingly learned of the cultural differences that have traditionally made it difficult, if not impossible, for women in the region to study overseas. For that reason, they neither benefit from the academic rigor and traditions of the best Western universities nor gain exposure to different intellectual cultures. Moreover, businesses in the region are deprived of new perspectives from women involved in business research. These factors have limited the potential for innovation and blocked the full participation of women in the workplace.

When Brunel Business School in London set up a partnership with Ahlia University, a private institution in Hoora, Bahrain, we found a real need and desire among women to contribute new ideas, drive change, and be part of a new environment for business in the Middle East. To meet that need, we worked with Ahlia University in 2007 to set up a new kind of doctoral program—a PhD without residence. Our vision was to allow students, especially women, to study for a British research degree while based at their local institution.


Ahlia University accepts applications to the program and then forwards the applications that meet Brunel University London’s admission requirements to us to make our final admissions decisions. The number of applications we have received to this new program—30 in all—has demonstrated the need for this alternative, nonresidency approach to the PhD. Of the eight students accepted, half are women—higher than we expected for a degree for which applicants are usually predominantly male.

Following a cohort-based model, students complete their doctorates in Bahrain, where they maintain a link to their home base. This approach generates a sense of community and shared journey among the students, lessening the sense of isolation that can come with some forms of distance learning. We also organize an annual symposium, attended by academics from the region, where students can present their research.

“I’ve been developing my transferable skills much more than I expected to do, attending workshops and training, presenting to various audiences, and traveling to conferences,” says Najma Taqi, a student in the program. “Being able to work for my degree on my own personal project, with all the freedom I like, is ideal for me.”

Brunel faculty interact with students primarily via Skype and email. Additional faculty also fly into Bahrain for two condensed face-to-face school sessions—once in summer and once in winter—where they deliver support sessions on topics such as research methods, thesis structure, and paper writing. The PhD students are required to travel to London only once in the entire program, for their oral “viva voce” defense of their thesis, so that we can evaluate and confirm the quality of their work before they exit the program.

This home-based model allows our doctoral students in Bahrain to concentrate their research on regional issues that matter to them. And because most students will not relocate after graduation, their knowledge will stay in the region, helping to create a knowledge economy that promotes growth and diversification. So far, students have worked on thesis topics such as community leadership in a new democracy, national culture and knowledge management, the role of emotional intelligence in improving intercultural training, and religion and corporate philanthropy.

Not surprisingly, many students also focus their research on the role of women in business. Taqi, for example, is analyzing factors that lead to obstacles and success for women entrepreneurs in developing countries. “Female contribution is a must,” says Taqi. “Research has shown the importance of women for economic growth.”

Student Layla Faisal Alhalwachi is studying women’s representation on corporate boards, a topic that “is particularly crucial in the context of the Middle East,” she says. “Women here have been given less access to senior leadership posts. My study aims to contribute solutions to help level the playing field.”


Noncompletion rates among PhD students are traditionally high, and the dropout risk for students in a nonresidential program could be higher still. That’s why Brunel’s staff is careful to be aware of the life situations of each student in our program, providing constant guidance, support, and encouragement.

That’s something that Ebtesam Al-Alawi, a student in the program as well as a working mother, believes is crucial to her success. (See “One Student’s Story” at the end of this page.) “With my hectic schedule, I am forced to face life’s daily obstacles as a business owner, an active member of society, and a PhD student. Having constant support helped me commit to the program,” she says.

Al-Alawi, whose research involves the study of the relation between team turnover and performance, notes that there is still a lack of understanding of gender differences and the role of women in business, particularly in the GCC region. “Theories on the creation of businesses have been formulated and tested on male entrepreneurs and don’t reflect women’s processes and organizational styles,” says Al-Alawi. “High-level research is needed to consider the problems faced by women entrepreneurs, their administrative practices, conflicts between their roles in their business and their families, and the vision they have for their enterprises.” Bringing more women into academia, she stresses, will drive more research—and more knowledge—about gender and business success.


Brunel Business School has several objectives for our partnership with Ahlia University. In addition to building the doctoral program that is open to students across the region, we want to develop a long-term relationship between our universities; deliver a pipeline of research with impact on regional business issues; and, most important, provide access to high-level research opportunities for women who face cultural obstacles to studying overseas.

To start this program, we have faced many challenges—first and foremost, we had to integrate this program into the sectarian nature of Bahraini politics and society. The Middle East is a politically charged region, which means that all activities and statements related to our partnership with and PhD program at Ahlia University have to be politically impartial, so that we can avoid any criticism or misinterpretation.

Our second challenge was one of resources. Staff at both institutions must devote additional time and effort to support the program, as well as commit to working locally in Bahrain when needed. But our staff is motivated by the opportunity to develop their research profiles, contribute to change and development in the Middle East, and support women’s research on local issues.

Our final challenge was to create a product that is not common in business scholarship, which meant we had to build a model for a PhD program without residence ourselves, without the benefit of examples from other schools. We obtained our university’s approval for the program by communicating its benefits not only to the students in Bahrain, but also to our own institution. We emphasized the opportunity it offered us to explore a new blueprint overseas and build capacity in the GCC region. We also worked closely with the British embassy, the British Council, and the U.K. Trade and Investment government agency to showcase our program in their promotions of British education.

Our partnership with Ahlia University wasn’t set up to generate revenue. It is expensive to devote our staff’s time to provide local service in Bahrain, and yet we can charge only £3,995 (about US$6,100) per year, in line with tuition limits in the U.K. But by more intangible measures, the program has delivered valuable benefits to both institutions.

For example, the program allows Ahlia University to develop its own research agenda, attract high-quality staff, offer PhD students greater support, and sustain its ability to attract and retain faculty. As a private sector institution in Bahrain, Ahlia cannot award PhDs, so this program helps the school differentiate itself from other private universities in the region.

The program also promotes dialogue and research between academics in the U.K. and Bahrain. We expect to see these kinds of opportunities increase, especially as more British universities realize the importance of forming partnerships overseas. Such partnerships can only be positive developments that encourage greater access to education, involve more women in academia, and broaden the reach of important new ideas.

Most important, we now have opportunities to build long-term relationships in Bahrain and the wider region, as well as to make true impact on scholarship in the GCC and effect social change. We believe these benefits to be well worth the investment.


Zahir Irani is the dean of the College of Business, Arts and Social Sciences at Brunel University in London, United Kingdom.